Two months ago, my first novel hit the bookstores. Since then, I’ve done a number of book talks/signings and have been a guest speaker at events. One of the questions I’ve frequently been asked is, “What tips do you have for an aspiring novelist?” Here is my list of ten “dos and don’ts.”
1. Start small. Writing short stories is a great way to do that. Many novelists have started this way, including me. Writing a good short story forces you to create and develop a character and take a plot from beginning to end in a limited number of pages. It also prepares you for writing a novel, because each chapter is basically a short story. Writing a short story is also much less intimidating than writing a novel.
2. Look for a fiction writing class and/or a writer’s group in your area. This is probably the most important thing I did, when, after a long hiatus, I decided to get back into fiction writing. While I was working full-time as an attorney, I enrolled in an evening fiction writing class at a local university.
What you can learn from others about voice, plot structure, character development, and general story-telling mechanics is invaluable. And other writers can provide so much inspiration. I always loved hearing what fellow students had written. Much of it was amazing and it always encouraged me to keep going and work harder.
3. Write things down. It’s helpful to jot down ideas for stories, bits of conversation you overhear, interesting situations you learn of, and character names you create. Keep a little notebook for this purpose and put it on your bedside table at night. Don’t trust your memory. That great idea you thought of just before going to bed will probably be gone in the morning.
4. Try to write something every day, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. Writing is a skill, like any other, and the more you do it the better you will become. If you can get into a routine, as far as where and when you write, all the better – but if not, just write.
5. Take advice from other authors. Two books I love are Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. They are both excellent resources on the craft of writing. I also found Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market to be another helpful resource when I was submitting stories for publication.
1. Don’t let your day job get in the way. We all have to earn a living. If you’re not lucky enough to have started writing at age twenty-five and now have a string of best-sellers under your belt, so be it. Not everyone can be a full-time writer. But don’t think that you can’t be a writer because you’re earning your living in some other way. And don’t use that as an excuse not to write. I wrote for years “on the side” while working as an attorney. Write whenever you can – at night, on weekends, early in the morning, on busses, on airplanes, while you’re skydiving (well, maybe not while you’re sky diving . . .).
2. Don’t fall in love with your words. At least don’t do it to the point where you can’t be a ruthless editor. It’s important to be able to read your work with a critical eye and get rid of excess verbiage or writing that sounds “clunky.” I’ve always found, regardless of whether it’s a legal memo or a short story, that if I put the work away for a while, I can come back to it with a fresh eye and I can more easily see where it needs improvement.
3. Don’t keep your work hidden away. If you want to get it published, you need to send it out. If it’s a short story, try submitting it to literary magazines; if it’s a novel, send query letters to agents. As mentioned earlier, Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market is a great source of information on fiction markets, agents, and writing contests.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask friends for help—especially if they are in the publishing field. There are probably thousands of great manuscripts out there that will never be published because the writer can’t get them to the right person. If you know someone who can help you and your work is good enough, they should be happy to do it. Ask!
5. Don’t forget that you are the writer. It’s great to get feedback from others, in a class or a writer’s group, or from other people whose judgment you trust, but in the end, the decisions about the story are yours. Different people will give you different advice and editing by committee never works. Analyze all of the comments and suggestions carefully, and then select the ones you think are key to making your story the best that it can be.